After a trio of films set in the San Fernando Valley—Boogie nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love-author-director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the 70s time period for the former and to his home for the nostalgia-laced Licorice pizzaafter almost 20 years away. His recurring themes of living on the edge of show business take shape in fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a mediocre teenage actor with some TV credits that oozes confidence in his other endeavors, including his romance, and who is beginning to Pursue Twenty-One Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a photography assistant who writes herself off because she thinks she has reached her professional best age. The story that follows is at times uneven, but flourishes in strange and fascinating ways. It’s rooted in the aesthetic fusion Anderson has perfected in recent years, between the dreamlike and the unsettling – and in this case the innocent and the thorny intricate – and by a pair of truly stunning debut performances that bring to life two of the most complete. formed, deeply complicated Hollywood characters in recent memory.
Anderson, who also shares cinematic credibility (along with Michael Bauman), evokes much of his work with film photographer Robert Elswit, who shot all three of Anderson’s previous San Fernando films. He paints the valley in warm and shady shades of 70mm celluloid, creating a sharp visual contrast that highlights every single physical detail of the characters, down to Gary’s hormonal pimples, while wrapping light around them in ways that speak to their darkest and brightest dreams. . Lens reflexes pierce the corners of the image every time opportunities arise – whether it’s sex, romance, star status or one of Gary’s many quick business opportunities, which Alana is eventually caught up in – but these are soon replaced by harsh shadows, which clashes with the film’s upbeat Classic Rock soundtrack, creating a dissonance specific to navigating teenage boys and budding sexuality. One scene in particular feels sweet, ugly, dangerous and nauseating at once as Gary’s shaking teenage hands approach Alana’s breasts after she falls asleep comfortably next to him on a rickety waterbed, but he withdraws at the last second.
Licorice pizza ★★★ 1/2
Both characters live on the abyss of terrible judgment, but they remain wrapped up in their personal and professional fantasies (if the presence is alluring and if the short absence is immediately discouraging). Alana, who does not convincingly claim to be twenty-five – perhaps she’s younger and wants to ward off Gary’s progress, even though she’s just as likely to touch thirty – is the youngest of four daughters (a personal touch from Anderson who grew up in a household with three sisters) and is the least successful among them. Her frustrations over her inertia lead to both a burning temper and a desire to seek satisfaction wherever she can find it, even though it happens to be a child’s attention at almost half her age.
She protests, especially because he’s a high school student, but Gary’s flirtatious compliments are akin to a drug. Haim plays Alana’s highlights with a wonderful delight, and her pursuit of her next fix with an erratic self-loathing that she unleashes in the form of anger at her slender inner circle (her family, for the most part – played by Haim’s real sisters and parents – though Gary soon enters his lane and his crosshairs). Around most others, she holds it under a tight and high-pressure lid; seeing Haim navigate other people, as well as himself, is probably the second most exciting thing in Licorice pizza. The first is to see Alana drive in a van running out of gasoline, a sequence that is hilarious in its calm construction, yet more exciting than any recent Hollywood action scene thanks to Haim’s anxious performance (and thanks to editor Andy Jurgensen’s precise clips that find the perfect balance between farcical and nail-biting).
The highlight of the film, however, is undoubtedly Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, with whom Anderson collaborated several times). Hans Gary is a delicate and pompous walker who moves from one sales company to the next – starting with a waterbed fashion, which he confidently trusts to exist. But what Hoffman and Anderson really understand about young actors is the way they always are. Everything about Gary is a show that aims to convince or seduce, from the way he chats older women, to the way he shuts down conversations he does not want other people to have, to the way , he charms both older customers and naive younger vintages. with his plans. Where Alana’s personal and professional dead ends lead her to a turnaround towards younger friends and colleagues, the wide-eyed Gary navigates roadblocks by turning to even bigger entrepreneurial projects. Where Alana remains in an arrested development, Gary fights forever, eagerly and impatiently to be treated as an adult (and as a celebrity).
They meet in the middle, and even though they are not part of a relationship, either physically or otherwise, sparks and blinds fly through the film’s 2 hours and 13 minutes, and Alana’s self-esteem erodes the very idea that Gary is dating a more age-appropriate – to despite the fact that it was her own suggestion to begin with. She shows an awareness of her actions and feelings towards Gary, but gets caught up in them regardless, which heralds a series of self-destructive behaviors that are funny as they unfold, but leave yawning emotional wounds once in her backstage.
When she realizes that she might want more out of life, she finally shifts gears, and the film begins to introduce a series of strange and flashy older characters embedded in showbiz, some of them real, and each of them played by famous faces who show up. looks significantly more tanned and tired than Alana, who is often as pale as her teenage countrymen and wears much simpler clothes than the celebrities who come along. Alana, Gary, and the other teens’ subdued performances and their naturalistic performance styles place them in a tangible, tangible reality. But when people like TV star Jack Holden (Sean Penn, playing a version of William Holden), the crazy director Rex Blau (Tom Waits) and the real producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) step into the fight, the scenes start to take a surrealistically bent and is coated with a thick and viscous layer of artifice.
Alana is attracted to this rich and screaming adult world of showbusiness, but it is not so attracted to her and so both her desires and frustrations are doubly directed at Gary. She especially takes potshots of his (understandable) lack of worldliness, but only in moments when she feels the need to remind herself that she is an adult – that she is better than him. Gary, in turn, is targeting even younger children, like his little brother and his friends, whom he summons to bidders and sellers. Age and the power dynamics within it are a central element of the film, with both protagonists desperately trying to fill emotional gaps by exercising influence and seeking worship wherever they can.
As much as Licorice pizza mirrors Boogie nights in its surroundings, time period, and narrative of teenage star status is the Anderson film most reminiscent of Phantom wire. Both work zero in on co-dependent, mutually destructive dynamics that remain enchanting – realistic relationships where love and abuse exist side by side and even overlap. However, Alana and Gary are painted with a more longing brush – theirs is a sweeping tale of summer fun rather than retaining frigidity. Where Phantom wireDaniel Day-Lewis Daniel Day-Lewis threw his character’s hardened exterior over time, the young Hoffman throws Gary’s all at once, as the character is arrested falsely, and Alana runs to his aid, in an early scene that quickly heralds the film – a pretty good one up to that point – through the gates of greatness. It’s devastating and exciting, and it briefly transforms the debonaire Gary into a scared little boy, a vulnerability he begins to show more often, and which he struggles with from that moment on (not to mention that it’s the first of several running scenes competing with the laugh-provoking excitement of watching a sprinting Tom Cruise).
The film is adept at getting right in the middle of the complicated dynamics, at least as far as Alana and Gary are concerned, and what lines it crosses or does not cross in relation to their age difference. That’s only as far as Anderson goes with their physical intimacy; their thorny emotional intimacy is what sings. These lines are often drawn by Alana herself before she promptly jumps and jumps around them as she searches for ways to fill a lingering void. However, the film briefly contains a secondary relationship intended to highlight marital complications – or another idea that is never completely connected – in the form of Gary’s middle-aged white acquaintance, the real restaurateur Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins). addressing his Japanese wife (Yumi Mizui) using a disturbingly racist accent, though this resembles minor comments (it was allegedly based on the experiences of Anderson’s Japanese mother-in-law) and more as a poorly thought-out running gag who only serves to distract from otherwise masterful work. Anderson argues that the goal here was honesty about the orientalism of the era, but its inclusion feels awkwardly grasped and not immediately as effective as the orientalist ideas embedded more casually in history that the “Arab” waterbeds Gary and Alana sell to their customers as futuristic and “exotic”.
Anderson is ultimately as good a salesman as his characters, permeating basic ideas – nostalgic navel-gazing, childhood fantasy and adult disappointments – with an energy that makes them sparkle. Together with Hoffman and Haim, who no doubt have long careers ahead of them, he makes modest conversation scenes and minor disagreements feel violently suffocating, which magnifies the characters’ subtle self-doubt by drowning their close-ups in soft focus and forcing them. to look forward behind their confident facades. He also frees them from this oppressive substance by pulling his camera off the tripod to follow them in the middle of the sprint, or in moments of quiet confrontation, or just when they begin to get carried away in their ill-conceived plans. The setting may be a fixed point in the past, but the film lets itself move forward with life and action.
Gary and Alana’s stories return to both unbridled teenage optimism and the heavy failures of early adulthood that collide like summer waves against a jagged cliff face. These opposing forces – one floating and stretching endlessly, the other with sharp, unshakable edges hardened over time – evoke memories of both the liberating adrenaline from a leap taken hand in hand, and the danger that lies beneath.
Licorice pizza is the moment between the jump and the crash – the feeling of weightlessness, even when you dive.
Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and remarkable cinema.